The Future of the Culture – and the Permanent Things

The Scene: Virginia Beach, Regent University, early February, a conference at the Reagan Symposium on “The Future of the Culture.” I lead with a talk on “A Touch for First Principles: Reagan and the Recovery of the Culture.” Warm reception; and when I’m done I can listen with pleasure to the roster of friends who follow: Allan Carlson, Jean Elshtain, Paul Cantor, Charles Kesler, Ken Myers, Bill McClay. (The program was carried on C-Span and will appear again.)

Paul Cantor is the Clifton Waller Barrett Professor of English at the University of Virginia; he has done a book on Shakespeare’s Rome, but he has written also on political economy and the “popular culture” (Gilligan Unbound). In a conference on “the culture” his own angle led him to focus on the arts. Conjecturing then about the future, his argument was: that the movement, or evolution, of the arts was virtually unpredictable. And the main reason is that the critics who were invited to offer their conjectures were quite different from the artists themselves, whose genius would open up new paths.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, said Cantor, almost no one could foresee that the moving picture would become the most powerful, penetrating branch of the arts in the century to come. The early critics thought the movies took their model from stage plays, and by that measure failed. Television, in turn, was compared unfavorably to movies, and yet we’ve reached the point where the best writing, he thought, was clearly found these days on television. And now, with the Internet, new media were daily displacing the old. Who could predict with any confidence what things would look like even ten years hence?

But as the conference unfolded, it fell to me in this conversation to put the accent on the permanent things, the things that would not be changing. A hundred years from now, I think we’ll find that the logic of natural rights would still be in place. We will still not be signing contracts with our horses and cows, nor would we be seeking the “informed consent” of our household pets before we authorize surgery on them. But we will still think that beings who can give and understand reasons should not be governed as we are compelled to govern horses and cows – that they should be governed with a rendering of reasons in a regime that elicits their “consent.” And speaking of right and wrong, the “logic of morals” will still be in place as Aquinas taught it: the things we regard as good and just are the things we would seek to praise and promote; the things we regard as wrongful we would still seek to restrain, discourage, even punish.

I recalled in this vein a recent innovation made to counter youngsters trying to download music on the net without paying for it. Suddenly they hear the voice of the singer, Madonna: “What the f— are you doing?!” Madonna fancies herself in the vanguard of cultural challenge and change; and yet she and her friends still cling to claims of “property rights” in their own work. Whatever the whirl of change, apparently, “property rights” will not lose their moral claim to endure, even for the people who clamor most dramatically for a change in the culture.

Paul Cantor caught some of this: The arts will convey stories, stories of love and betrayal, courage and risk and redemption. We should not be surprised then to find Charles Dickens recycled even as the media are transformed around us. And yet, the primary truth here runs deeper. Immanuel Kant alerted us to the point that, for every class of activities, there is a portion of them that ought not be done. There is nothing we can name – no activity, no thing – that cannot be part of a means-end chain leading to a hurtful end. The skill of driving may be used to drive an ambulance – or a getaway car for the Mafia. Is it really conceivable that the arts alone may never be used to injure or hurt? I’ve never met an artist who did not think that the arts can ennoble and enliven the culture. But if arts can ennoble, they can also degrade.

Newt Gingrich gets rhapsodic about the revolution in information brought about by the net. But it has also brought corruption and injury on another scale, from the theft of identities through the diffusion of coarseness and libel. It has made pornography ever more accessible while concealing the identity of the user. In that way, it has massively enlarged the volume of pornography and deepened the addiction for many. The evidence accumulates now, both from journalists and from priests hearing confessions, that this wave of pornography has brought vast wreckage in the relations of husbands and wives, and the lives of families.

The changes in the arts may be wondrous in their materials and media, but nothing in that dizzying array of the new will efface the old questions: There will still be a difference between a corrupted and a decent use, depending on whether the arts will convey stories, teach lessons that are rightful or wrongful, ennobling or degrading. Those old questions will ever be with us, because they are bound up with the enduring nature of that creature who alone can reason over matters of right and wrong.

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.